|HIKING THE ZION NARROWS (North Fork of the Virgin River)|| |
|OVERVIEW (Routes, Permits, Equipment, etc.)|| |
The North Fork of the Virgin River (aka "The Zion Narrows") is probably one of the most legendary canyons to hike in all of Zion National Park. The Zion Narrows is the section of the Virgin River just upstream from the Temple of Sinawava (the end of the road up the main canyon). Here, the majestic walls of the main canyon close in to form a tall and narrow canyon with beautiful dark corners and the Virgin River flowing around you. With beautiful flowing water and barely any direct sunlight reaching the bottom, this is the slot canyon that all other slot canyons are compared to.
Three Ways to Hike the Zion Narrows:
- Zion Narrows Day Hike (Bottom Up from the Temple of Sinawava):
For tourists or casual hikers who want to see the best of the Zion Narrows, this is the route to do. Starting at the Temple of Sinawava, you can hike up the Riverside Walk trail and then continue hiking right up the river to see some of the best "narrows" sections of the North Fork of the Virgin River. Hike up as far as you want to go and then turn around and retrace your steps. A side hike up Orderville Canyon is also a good detour to see even more amazing slot canyon scenery. As a round-trip hike, this can be as leisurely or strenuous as you wish to make it.
ROUTE INFORMATION and PHOTOS...
- Two-Day Backpack Down from the Top (from Chamberlain's Ranch):
Starting from Chamberlain's Ranch northeast of Zion National Park, the North Fork can be hiked top-down from the upper plateau. This longer route is less popular, but it is quite a rewarding experience to see the more subtle beauty of the the upper North Fork as it slowly transforms from an open stream into the majestic and deep slot canyon that opens into the main canyon in Zion. This hike is a strenuous 16 miles of river hiking and makes a great two-day backpack with many wonderful designated camping spots to spend the night at.
ROUTE INFORMATION and PHOTOS...
- One-Day Hike Down from the Top (from Chamberlain's Ranch):
If you are a speed hiker in very good shape and you start early and pack light, you can do the top-down hike in one day, but you will be racing against the clock and won't have much time to explore, take pictures, or smell the roses. (This hike may take 12-14 hours to complete.)
ROUTE INFORMATION and PHOTOS...
You do not need a permit to do the Zion Narrows day hike from the Temple of Sinawava. You DO, however, need a Zion backcountry permit for all top-down hikes, even if you are not backpacking. If you are doing the backpacking option, you pick your campsite when you reserve or purchase the permit for your group.
Two caveats: The National Park Service will not issue any Narrows permits if water levels are too high, either because of flash floods or high spring runoff. During the winter months, permits for the one-day top-down hike are also not issued as there is not enough daylight to complete the hike safely. Please see the Zion Permits website for more information.
Water Levels and Flash Floods:
What description of the Narrows would be complete without warning about the danger of flash foods and water levels! The difficulty of hiking the Narrows is greatly effected by water flow, and a strong enough rain storm can turn a calm and shallow stream into a deadly wall of rushing water. Please check the weather forecast and/or the Backcountry Desk for current conditions and for any advisories. Remember that it doesn't have to be raining directly above you for a threat to be possible. To see the current and median water levels, check the USGS's
water data website.
Seasons and Spring Runoff:
The hiking season for the Zion Narrows is typically summer and autumn, but the start of the season is controlled by the spring runoff and water levels. The Backcountry Desk will not issue a permit to hike the Zion Narrows if water flow is above 130cfs. Usually the Narrows are open for business in late May or early June, but in record snowfall years like 2005 and 2011, the Narrows weren't open until mid-July. To see the current and median water levels, check the USGS's
water data website.
It is possible to hike the Narrows bottom-up in fall and winter, provided you are adequately prepared for the cold water; wetsuits or even drysuits may be called for, depending on the temperatures. If you want to do the top-down Narrows in the winter, keep in mind that the NPS Service will not issue a one-day top-down permit because there is not enough daylight to complete the hike safely. Snowfall or heavy rains may also make the dirt road to Chamberlain's Ranch impassible.
Beyond what you would take on any other hike (food, water, map, etc.), below is a list of some of the essential equipment you will need for any of the Zion Narrows hiking routes. If you don't have your own equipment, many of the outfitters in Springdale sell or rent equipment.
- Footwear: Since you will be hiking in knee-deep water almost all of the time, strong water-friendly footwear with toe protection is a must. Some of the stronger models of Keen sandals are okay, but even better are any trail runners that do *not* have GORE-TEX, so they can breathe and drain. (A shoe like the La Sportiva Xplorer works great; they offer good foot protection, good grip, drain and dry quickly, and are good for dry hikes as well.) Also popular are the FiveTen Canyoneers, although they are a bit bulky. And a good pair of neoprene socks will be much better than cotton to keep your feet warm and blister-free.
Footwear to avoid: light sandals or water shoes like Tevas. They will likely break before the end of the day and if your toes are exposed, your toes will get smashed in the rocks. Also avoid big heavy hiking boots; while they will protect your feet, they will feel very heavy and most boots take too long to dry out and will get a bad case of the stinks.
- Hiking poles: You don't need anything too fancy, but hiking poles or even just a hiking stick will be invaluable! Since you will be in the water almost all day and many river crossings have fairly strong currents, poles or a stick really help with keeping your stability. Tip: If you have only one stick, use it on the upstream side -- this really makes balancing easier! Note: If you come to the trailhead unprepared, you may be able to find a walking stick at the unofficial walking stick exchange area at the end of the Riverside Walk trail. (I have been very happy with the Black Diamond Trail Back Trekking Poles.)
- Drybag: Very useful to stow your wallet, camera, and other items that don't like to get wet. While most of the Narrows hike is knee to waist deep, there are a few chest-deep sections and very occasionally you may get seasonal swimming sections.
- Clothing: Any clothing that doesn't mind getting wet. While quick-drying/moisture-wicking material is the best, it is also a bit too pricey for my wallet, but neoprene socks are a good (and not too expensive) alternative to cotton socks. A fleece would be a great to keep you warm as direct sunlight is sparse. If you are hiking in the cold off-season (October through April), a wetsuit or even a drysuit would be beneficial, especially when water temperatures are in the 30s and 40s (Fahrenheit).
- Backpacking Gear: If you are doing the top-down backpacking route, standard overnight gear is in order -- sleeping bag, small tent, small portable stove and drybags to stow this gear in. (Nothing is worse than a wet sleeping bag.) Note: No campfires are allowed in the Zion backcountry. To save space, many hikers forgo the luxury of the tent, but I can't bring myself to do this.
- Headlamp: This little piece of gear will be invaluable if you get stuck in the Narrows after dark. Without a headlamp, you don't have any chance of hiking out of the Narrows after final light. Bring one, especially if you are attempting the top-down route in a day. (A good simple model is the Petzl E93.)
Please see the Zion Narrows Day Hike and Zion Narrows Top-Down Route descriptions for more specific route information!
Return to the Zion Narrows Section